Big Pond, Little Pond

After Princeton, Harvard Law School and a federal appellate clerkship, what to do 40 years ago?  Practice international law, my career aspiration, or return home to Cincinnati, where there was no global legal practice at any firm of that era?  Seven years of the Ivies called out, “Big cities—New York, Paris, London—big deals, big money, big things.”  The big pond siren.  But I chose home.

Good decision.  Marriage to a soulmate, two wondrous daughters.  Today I chair a robust international law practice at a firm bigger than any that existed in 1975.  Work is with the heart of the economy—small and mid—sized businesses, start-ups and mega-companies that export and import, have international personnel, run global websites and manage foreign operations.  I’ve been to 75 countries, done volunteer training and exchanges in Ukraine, Kurdistan, Palestine and the DPRK.  Every week I talk or email with Finland, India, the BVI, Mexico. 

40 years ago, I wrote down on a yellow pad the pros and cons of big-city international life versus return to Cincinnati.  To my surprise, the exercise led me to sacrifice an immediate career goal for an array of positives that made home the better choice.  I could buy a house for less than friends rented a Manhattan efficiency.  Trees all around and the office ten minutes away.  I could join civic and charitable boards without a millionaire’s checkbook.  If there wasn’t a group for an interest, I could form one with —a Soviet (now Ukraine) sister city, summer camps for third graders who can’t read, a revolving loan fund for historic buildings, a foreign policy leadership council.  

The mind stretching of an Ivy education, a scholarship from Princeton the summer of 1969 to drive a VW squareback through the Soviet Union, mentors like Jim Billington and Fred Starr, classmates from Woodbridge and Hong Kong – all shaped me to apply broad thinking to home realities.  “Why not” became the approach, instead of “that’s how it is.”  Sitting next to Laurence Rockefeller at a Princeton Trustee meeting and hearing how RockResorts transformed a Caribbean island helped me envision Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine area as a treasure ready to be restored rather than a hopeless ghetto.  Understanding how Wall Street and London and Russia affect Main Street helped build a securities dispute practice that included victories over the so-called “Wolf of Wall Street,” FINRA arbitrations and takeover battles, while I waited for international practice to grow.

Grow it did over 40 years, like a mustard seed to a giant bush.  Our firm’s mid-sized clients increasingly have 30% of their sales to foreign buyers. We represent hundreds of foreign companies unlocking and enriching the world’s greatest single country market, the USA.  Inbound and outbound international work in Cincinnati and our other ten offices of similar or lesser size is an established practice.  Our attorneys speak 20 languages.  Every day is a new challenge in Stuttgart or Pune or Moscow or Phuket.

The choice I faced 40 years ago is no longer an either/or.  Focus, expertise and experience are what count.  The web, cell phones and other technology make it almost irrelevant where you sleep and walk your dog.  Lower cost and ease of travel—despite security hassles—make it possible to live anywhere and get to in-person meetings if videoconferencing will not suffice.  From Cincinnati I can leave home at 6, have meetings in Manhattan, be home for dinner by 7.

When a graduate considers what to do with life, “the big pond” is best viewed through filtered lenses.  The median house price in Cincinnati is one fourth what it is in suburban NYC, one eighth the price in Silicon Valley.  We don’t spend hours commuting in Cincinnati.  We coach soccer on the weekends and enjoy world class Ballet, and now and then the Bengals get to the super bowl.  Enamored nonetheless of hitting it big, seduced by the thought that you can’t go home again because you’ve outgrown it?  Remember then that Warren Buffet lives in Omaha, Bill Gates in Seattle.  Big pond, small pond—that’s a pond-zi scheme mirage.  You can expand your home pond by returning to it.